Fear of the unknown: The obscure Irish gothic

Lafcadio Hearn and his wife.
Image: Wiki Commons

Geneva Pattison

Every year around this time, we are reminded of one of our most hallowed and terrifying literary exports, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Over a century later, the man behind the fangs seems to have punctured every facet of pop-culture.

We have seen vampires in movies, art, 21st century literature and even bleeding over into the realm of fashion and makeup. Stoker’s seminal work may be our most prominent example of Gothic literature, however it’s certainly not our only one. 

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn is a sometimes forgotten Irish writer of horror, possibly because his main topic of interest was Japanese folklore. He was born in 1850 in Greece to Irish Officer Charles Hearn and Greek native Rosa Cassimati, who moved to Dublin in 1852.

His early life was quite bleak, one might say the tale of his upbringing was his first foray into dread. His father was never present and as a result the marriage failed, resulting in Hearn’s mother abandoning him and leaving for Greece when he was four.

By 1857, he was being raised by his great aunt in Dublin, as his father had left for India and remarried. Lafcadio never saw his father again. Hearn recalls a particularly terrifying period in his life in Dublin, when he was locked in an isolated room where no fire was allowed to be lit and no candles were permitted to be used.

This segregating action was supposed to cure the young Hearn of his fear of the dark, which it did not. While being educated in England, a teenage Hearn lost all sight in one eye after an accident, leaving him feeling haunted by a sense of deformity for the rest of his days.

The effect of these unfurling life events meant whatever venture Hearn pursued later in life, he always seemed to skirt the edges of the unfamiliar, the unknown and the simply unheard of in the 1800’s. He found comfort in the strange and his work began to echo this. In the 1880’s his writings traversed into the domain of ghosts, cautionary spectres and that of the uncanny.

Hearn moved to Japan in 1890 and fell in love with the country and its strong heritage. He started a family and began to write on all aspects of Japan, including its folk legends, to try and relay his love of the then-mysterious country to the Western world.

His book “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things” was Hearn’s adaptation and translation of ancient Japanese lore and ghost stories. The tale of “Mimi-nashi Hōichi” is about a blind minstrel with an extraordinary gift for playing the biwa (Japanese lute). He was trained from a young age to sing and recount the tales of famous historical battles and he delivered the songs with such emotion that “even the goblins could not refrain from tears”.

In the tale, Hoichi is poor and has to live with a kind priest in a temple. However, one night while playing the biwa he is approached by a samurai who demands that the musician comes with him to play for his lord.

He agrees to perform and the blind Hoichi is led by the warrior to meet the wealthy court. I don’t want to give away the entire story but at some point poor Hoichi… loses his ears. Despite this, the story ultimately has a happy ending, but eeriness, superstition and a curse precedes it.

Originally, “Kwaidan” was published in 1904, but since then edited and curated compilations of Hearn’s work have been published. Penguin Classics have one such compilation edited by Paul Murray which includes an essay, “Nightmare Touch”, written by Hearn on the subject of fear itself. In the essay, Hearn asks “What is the fear of ghosts among those who believe in ghosts?” He argues that all fear is the result of experience. What do you think? Have you seen a ghost?

The Female Gothic Legacy in Ireland 

From the 19th century onwards, Irish female writers have been producing Gothic literature to evoke feelings of the uncanny and beguile curious readers. Many of these stories would elicit fear from the most rigid of skeptics – you have been warned.

The anthology, “Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women” is comprised of otherworldly tales as crafted by the authors, reflecting both continental and exotic frights but with even scarier terrors closer to home.

Lady Jane Wilde born in 1821, poet, writer and mother to Oscar Wilde features early on in the book with her tale “The Child’s Dream”. Her story is set in old Ireland, telling of an ancient Prince of Munster and his young family who lived peacefully on the island of Innis Sark.

One day, the Prince’s young son is delivered a somewhat cryptic message in a dream…  “why do you come here, dear child; for none but the dead come here”. It is a foreboding tale of premonition and that which is unseen, drawing heavily from Irish religious folklore and mysticism.  

Well-known dramatist, folklorist and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Augusta Gregory utilises eye-witness accounts from all across Ireland to incite terror from the reader. “The Unquiet Dead” is a collection of folk tales about ghouls, maledictions and things that go bump in the night from the Aran Islands to Kildare.

One such unearthly tale comes from a woman named Mrs. Casey. She recounts the story of two young girls who took a rest by a bush one day, while out gathering supplies. The girls heard a voice moan from under the ground where they rested. They ran home and returned with a man who, sure enough, heard the same sad moaning.

Bending down to the ground to listen closer, he heard a voice say… “Let someone shave me and get me out of this, for I was never shaved before dying”. The man returned the third day with soap and a razor, to find a body lying on top of the grass where he had been listening. He shaved the dead man and when he was done he saw it ascend to the sky.

The retellings are mostly to do with wayward spirits and ghosts trapped on earth, however there is an unusual story at the end of the collection delivered by an old army man about the time he had a vision of hell.

In the vision, he says, he walked through a large archway of searing hot metal and to his left five furnaces stood, filled with trapped souls in chains. He also tells of a giant hot metal wall that surrounded the archway which seemed to go on forever in either direction. Trapped souls? Walls? Sounds disturbingly familiar if you ask me.

“Bending to Earth” is edited by Maria Giakaniki and Brian J. Showers and showcases twelve short stories by Irish women. Each of the authors included in the anthology was not primarily known for their writing on phantasmagorical topics, but each of them has ventured into the realm of the mystical, exploring a world where others dare not tread. 

If you’re feeling brave this Halloween season, the books mentioned above have a whole host of frightful delights for fans of the supernatural and they make for a welcome departure from the usual scary novels we see time and again. However, be aware that any chills felt during your reading may not be the result of the Autumnal weather alone…